In episode 14, President Bob Iuliano and Bruce Gordon ’68, former President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, discuss the work that remains before us, both within higher education and beyond, to build a racially just society.
In Episode 14 of Conversations Beneath the Cupola, podcast host, Gettysburg College President Robert Iuliano, is joined by Bruce Gordon ’68, former President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Iuliano and Gordon discuss the work that remains before us, both within higher education and beyond, to build a racially just society.
The episode begins with Gordon providing an overview of his professional journey since graduating from Gettysburg College—a journey which has always been rooted in civil rights and race relations, and ultimately led him to his leadership role with the NAACP. He explains that while the inequalities that Black people face today, and have faced throughout history, are innumerable, at the NAACP, he focused on the two things that he thought would have the most significant impact on changing the lives of Black Americans: education and employment. The conversation continues as Gordon talks about the value of college campuses as a venue to ignite change. He also shares his experience at Gettysburg College in the ’60s, when he was one of three Black students on campus, and how it shaped him into the leader he is today.
Later in the episode, Gordon answers the question that he posed to Gettysburg College students five years ago during a dedication ceremony for the statue of Abraham Lincoln on campus: Can we be the great nation that we have been in the past?
The episode concludes with an anecdotal “Slice of Life” told from the president’s perspective. Iuliano reflects briefly on the reversal of the recent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which would have made it more difficult for international students to study in the United States. Specifically, he highlights the vast value of different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different life experiences on College campuses, as they encourage students to think more globally and to be bold in their aspirations.
Guests featured in this episode
Bruce Gordon ’68, an emeritus trustee, and a 1999 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. Gordon served as President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and previously held senior leadership positions including President of Retail Markets Group for Verizon Communications, with responsibility for the company’s $23 billion consumer and small business unit. In 2006, Ebony Magazine named Gordon one of its 100 Most Influential Black Americans and Organization Leaders.
Bruce Gordon ’68: I have, maybe, a disproportionately large expectation in terms of the power of students, the energy of students, the idealism of students.
President Bob Iuliano: Hi, and welcome to "Conversations Beneath the Cupola," a Gettysburg College podcast. I’m Bob Iuliano, president of the college and your host. Over the course of the last several months, we’ve used this podcast to explore aspects of the issues presented by the global pandemic. Today, we turn our attention to an equally important and pressing issue, the continuing effort to achieve a more racially just society. In this episode, I am joined by one of Gettysburg College’s most notable alumni, Bruce Gordon. Bruce was a 1968 graduate of the College, an Emeritus Trustee, a 1999 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. He served as the President and CEO of the NAACP, and previously held senior leadership positions, including President of Retail Markets Group for Verizon Communications with responsibility for the company’s $23 billion consumer and small business unit. In 2006, "Ebony Magazine" named Bruce one of its 100 Most Influential Black Americans and Organization Leaders.
President Bob Iuliano: So Bruce, welcome and thank you for joining me today. You’ve spent most of your career in business, but a good chunk of it as well has spoken to questions of racial justice, inclusivity and advancing the aspirations of American democracy. Could you reflect on your career path, some of that work that you’ve done and sort of how you landed in that space?
Bruce Gordon ’68: So Bob, my journey since graduation has always been about civil rights and race relations. That has been my purpose in life. I believed that corporate America was going to become the next major platform for change. So my decision to go into the business community was not to be a businessman, so to speak, it was to enter an arena where I could pursue social change and civil rights and make an impact. The Bell System, where I started, was the second largest employer in the country, second to the government. So it was a big organization, and I believed that if I could impact policy around workforce, around community, around philanthropy, around resource allocation, that would really make an impact. So, today we call it diversity and inclusion, didn’t call it back then. That is in fact what I was attempting to do by going to work in the Bell System in 1968.
President Bob Iuliano: At some point you left industry at least for a period of time and moved to the NAACP. What encouraged you to make that change, and did that change in platform actually give you a different sort of capacity to advance the work that you wanted to advance?
Bruce Gordon ’68: So I actually retired from what was then Verizon after 35 years. So in my mind, I was done. I had had a great career and I was ready to move on to the next phase of my life. And some 19 months after I retired, the NAACP hired a search firm and they called me. And I looked at it and said, "Am I ready to get back in and do something of this nature?" And believed that given my commitment to social change and civil rights, how could I say no to the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the country, if not the world? So making that move to the NAACP seemed to be a natural progression, although it certainly was not something that I had anticipated when I retired. It was an interesting ride. I was surprised in some respects of what I learned.
Bruce Gordon ’68: I was surprised, and I shouldn’t have been, with the fact that I lived in New York City for many years, and I lived both literally and figuratively on an island. And while I considered myself to be socially aware, well-read, engaged, an activist, it wasn’t until I went to the NAACP that my eyes were open, the lens was expanded to really get on the ground and see what life looked like in the deep south, in the middle of the country, for people who look like me. So the venture into the civil rights community in a formal way was life changing for me and perspective changing for sure.
President Bob Iuliano: What did you see as your principal objectives and goals as you undertook that work? And as you reflect on it, how would you regard your success?
Bruce Gordon ’68: Well, in broad terms, we always understood, I think, as a community, that there were vast disparities in terms of the experience of black Americans versus white Americans in terms of how we live on any dimension. So this broad strategy was to reduce, if not eliminate, disparities in some fairly predictable areas. Voting rights, education, criminal justice, healthcare, economic justice. These were all things that the NAACP, and frankly, the civil rights community at large were focused on. And the issue was, how do we narrow, if not eliminate those disparities? But my thinking and my goals evolved over time, because I realized that each of those areas were a mess, multi-dimensional. And to think that one organization could take them all on effectively was impractical.
Bruce Gordon ’68: So as I kind of triaged and really tried to get more focus, I concluded that the two things that would have the most significant impact on changing the experience for black America was education and employment. If you develop skills, and they qualify you and prepare you to get a job and earn a living, then that will in many respects help deal with the other areas of concern that we were focused on, like healthcare, like criminal justice and so on. So I really found myself focusing on what I now will refer to as economic justice, which is based on getting a skill, getting an education, getting a job.
President Bob Iuliano: Well, it will not surprise you that I very much emphatically agree with the notion that education is a gateway for success at a whole bunch of dimensions, not just economically, but socially and culturally in the United States. And so that work matters enormously. It may lead us into the next topic of conversation, and that is we’re seeing a resurgence in interest and attention on the questions of racial justice in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and many other related issues. Yes, to some extent, it’s about the reconceptualization of the role of police, but it’s clearly broader than that. What do you make of this moment in time from your vantage point and your experience? Many of the issues that you described, economic justice in the like, continue to be the issues that people are talking about today. How do you draw a parallel between the work that you did at the NAACP and what you’re seeing today? And my ultimate question is going to be this, is this an enduring moment, and do you actually have optimism that change, enduring, effective change will emerge from it?
Bruce Gordon ’68: So to speak to your first question, I think that the issues, unfortunately are still the same, and unfortunately are probably worse, not better. So despite the fact that one might make an argument that over a century, life of the black Americans is better than it was then. There’s still are two, there are haves and have nots in America, and a disproportionate number of have nots or percentages are African Americans. So those issues that I listed are as relevant today as they were then. That said, I would also say to you that my focus and belief that economic justice is at base case at the foundation of driving broader social change, I still believe that. And I still believe that a focus on education and employment, I’ve been involved in an organization called the Black Economic Alliance, and we sometimes shortcut the description of economic justice to work wages and wealth.
Bruce Gordon ’68: So I still am convinced that the base case, the foundation for sustainable social change in our community is tied to education and economic justice. That to me hasn’t changed. Now, obviously the George Floyd experience clearly confirms that the Criminal Justice System is broken, and we’ve seen more, obviously in our community, we’ve been seeing George Floyd like experiences for decades. But in the last six months, we’ve seen these incidents across the country. So I don’t want to make light of the Criminal Justice System and its failure, I don’t want to make light of the need for police reform. We need those things. I don’t want to make light of voting rights as we approach the 2020 elections. Those are still very important, so let’s not take them off the table. It’s just that if you ask me to focus, my focus is on economic justice. I think that is the real game changer.
President Bob Iuliano: And are you optimistic that this moment in time may actually lead to the sort of change that will make a difference?
Bruce Gordon ’68: I don’t know is the honest answer. I’m hopeful, but I’m also a realist. So I don’t know. I don’t know whether this is an adrenaline rush. I hate to use that term, but I just worry that people were so alarmed, so troubled, so moved by what they witnessed with George Floyd, they just had this spontaneous response to get out and speak about it. But the real question is whether it is in fact sustainable? And I don’t know, let me just give you a quick example. You know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. And when the people of Montgomery, when the black folks of Montgomery decided to take that boycott on, what they were doing was saying, we’re not going to ride the bus. So when we go to work, no matter where we go, we’re going to walk, we’re going to carpool, we’re going to find another way. We’re going to take buses out of our lives for as long as it takes to get equality in traveling on a bus.
Bruce Gordon ’68: They did that for 382 days. So, I participated in a protest march, my wife and I a few weeks ago, and it was exciting and the energy was palpable, but things in New York are a little quieter now, things in the country are a little quieter now. That doesn’t mean that there’s not things happening, but can we count on this energy to sustain itself with the level of commitment that folks in Montgomery in 1955 through 1956 demonstrated? I just don’t know. I want to be hopeful, I’m an optimist by nature. But just one other thing, think about the other variables that will affect this. Where’s COVID-19, and how will that figure in? Where’s the economy, and how will that figure in? What about the 2020 elections? So there’s some variables that will have an influence on whether we keep our eye on the ball of driving the change for social justice.
President Bob Iuliano: But I worry about that a bit, Bruce. And part of what I hope we do as an educational institution is to instill in students the capacity to do a deeper guide, and not just to be at a superficial level and to commit to things that matter to them. We’ll see.
Bruce Gordon ’68: I think that the role of colleges and universities is disproportionately large in terms of the sustainability of this change movement. Keep in mind, I’m a 60s kid. So, I came of age in the 60s. I was on Gettysburg’s campus from ’64 to ’68. I started my career shortly thereafter. For my lifetime, the most energized part of my life was during the ’60s. I thought that our nation was alive, I thought the spirit and desire for change was at its peak. The Civil Rights Movement was on fire. The Antiwar Movement was as active as it could’ve been. This is the first time that I’ve seen energy that rivals what was happening in the ’60s. And if you think about the ’60s, one of the venues for that energy was the college campus. So I am counting on you and your colleagues across the country to keep that energy alive on the campus. I had maybe a disproportionately large expectation in terms of the power of students, the energy of students, the idealism of students. So I think you’ve got a big role to play.
President Bob Iuliano: Well, I agree with that. And I think if you spend time on the campus, you will be optimistic about the idealism of our students and students generally, and a sense of determination to make a difference. And I don’t want to spend too much time on this, Bruce, but part of what I want to do as president is to take advantage of the history of this place and its commitment to notions of the unfinished work of the American democracy, and to use that as a framework to speak to the values that we’re seeking to instill in our students, regardless of what path in life they go down, whether it is in law, or business, or the arts.
President Bob Iuliano: There’s an orientation to the world that I think we have the capacity, a special obligation even, to instill here that I’m trying to work on putting in place, or at least amplifying given the place. So let’s say a word or two about your path at Gettysburg and then your broader views about education. Not exactly a racially diverse college when you were here in the 1960s. I think I understand this right, that you were one of three African American students in the entire college and the only one in your class. So if I have that right, or even if I don’t, the order of magnitude is certainly right. That must’ve heavily influenced your experience here. Can you say a word or two about that?
Bruce Gordon ’68: Your math is right. And while I understood that I would be a minority on campus, I didn’t realize that I would be one of three on a campus of what was then 1,800. It was pretty shocking to me. I would characterize my experience at Gettysburg as an immersion. Okay. I was surrounded with students, faculty, administrators, and a town that was virtually all white. And being a city kid and grew up in Camden, New Jersey, which at that point was a vibrant city, right across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, a major city, I was a city sidewalks kind of a kid. And so, to move from Camden, New Jersey, to Philadelphia metropolitan area, to central Pennsylvania in what I considered a tiny town of Gettysburg, on a campus of all white folks, was, I can’t even tell you how shocking that was.
Bruce Gordon ’68: But I think, and I’ve said this to others, I think by the time the dust settled and I left Gettysburg as a graduate, I think that I got a better education than my white classmates did. Because while certainly it was an academic experience and a challenging one for me, by the way, because I arrived at Gettysburg unprepared for the rigors of Gettysburg College academics, it was a life change for me. I learned a lot about who I was, I learned a lot about an entirely different culture. So if you ask me, do I have fond memories of my time at Gettysburg? The answer to that is no. If you ask me if the Gettysburg College learning experience, not just in the classroom, but outside the classroom, on the campus and in the town, was that impactful for me, did I develop as a person, did I learn more about who I am and what I believe in? Absolutely I did. So it proved to be a life altering experience, but it wasn’t the one that I necessarily charted out when I went there.
President Bob Iuliano: Fair enough. But you remained involved with the College thereafter, why?
Bruce Gordon ’68: Shortly after I graduated and started to think just more in retrospect about my experience and about the administration, I became more aware of the board of trustees and what trustees do. And when I looked at the board of trustees, I was certainly not surprised to find out that there was no diversity on the board. So, one of the sitting trustees sought me out and suggested that I think about becoming a trustee someday, which was something that I had never even considered. And as I thought that through and as I reflected on what I thought I had learned and grown, how I had grown at Gettysburg, I was able to say to myself objectively, if African American students could have an opportunity to study at Gettysburg and have a Gettysburg experience, and if instead of being one of three on a campus of 1,800, there were some critical mass so they would in fact see other people that look like them, this Gettysburg thing could be pretty cool.
Bruce Gordon ’68: And for them, in addition to having a good learning experience, they couldn’t leave the campus with fond memories and want to return. So, keeping with being a change agent, I figured why not if invited get involved with the campus, get involved on the board and see whether you could change the demographics of campus life at Gettysburg College? So I viewed it as a challenge and an opportunity.
President Bob Iuliano: Well, thank you for contributing. You should know that our admitted class was the most diverse class that we have admitted in the history of the College, where 25% of the students are domestic students of color or international students. That’s not by any means a sufficient metric for what we’re trying to do, because you and I, I suspect would strongly agree, that success is not just about numbers, it’s about the environment that’s created. And we, like every other college, has work to do in that, but it’s work we’re determined to do and we’ve worked hard on. And I hope from your vantage point, you’ve been able to see the college make progress on a set of issues that matter to us, and I think matter more broadly.
President Bob Iuliano: Bouncing around just a little bit, but I do want to acknowledge the passing of John Lewis, who was someone I’ve had a privilege of meeting on a couple of occasions, and who’s had as much impact on American society as just about anybody, and particularly in the sphere of civil rights. Would you say a word or two about how you think of Lewis’s legacy and whether it influenced you in the path you’re on?
Bruce Gordon ’68: There’s so much one could say about John Lewis. I try to sort of reduce it to the almost being overly simplistic. But John Lewis to me is the definition of perseverance, the definition of determination, the definition of tenacity, along with an incredible amount of selflessness. When I think about John Lewis, those are words that come to mind. He for his entire life never gave up the fight for social justice. I mean, for 60 plus years John Lewis was engaged in a fight for social justice. He served 17 terms in Congress, 34 years. He’s a guy who, you use the old Western phrase, he died with his boots on. He never walked away. And so when I think of John Lewis, he’s the model for me of how all of us should think about purpose, how all of us should think about commitment. To our earlier discussion about, will this current wave of activity around social change? The question is, will we have the same degree of endurance and commitment that John Lewis had?
President Bob Iuliano: He made this iconic call for necessary and good trouble that I find pretty appealing in many respects, because it’s a statement about not just perseverance, but it’s about putting yourself on the line to make a difference, willing to be disruptive constructively. Are there lessons in his life, and maybe you just answered this to some extent, Bruce, but lessons in his life and that philosophy that could help us understand how the current moment might actually have that enduring impact that we both want for it?
Bruce Gordon ’68: Well, to quote another great African American, Frederick Douglas, as far back as 1857, and I’ll read this, he said, "If there is no struggle, there’s no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening." And to me, that sentiment is totally consistent with John Lewis and his comments around trouble. Whether you’re Colin Kaepernick who takes a knee and it cost him his job, whether you’re thousands of people who marched in the peaceful protest around the country and around the world, whether you’re Gettysburg College professor, Scott Hancock, who I recently saw on a video make the case for Black Lives Matter, challenging the presence of Confederate memorials at the Gettysburg Battlefield in the face of threats and intimidation, those are the kinds of behaviors that John Lewis was talking about. Those are the kinds of behaviors that will make the difference in terms of whether we bring about change or not.
Bruce Gordon ’68: That, to me, when it’s all said and done, it’s will we rise up as Americans in a democracy that demands engagement, demands activism, and take our place and get off of the sidelines and onto the field? I’ll use whatever metaphor comes to mind. We have to be engaged, and that’s what’s going to make the difference. John Lewis understood that.
President Bob Iuliano: Let me tie two threads together. And that is, we’ve talked a little bit about education, we’ve talked a lot about the path of social justice. And you alluded to this earlier, but what is the role of higher education, and in particular, what role would you urge for Gettysburg College as this work continues?
Bruce Gordon ’68: So Lawrence Lowenthal was a professor at Gettysburg while I was there, and he continued. And he gave the speech at Spring Honor’s Day in 1969. So it’s a year after I graduated. But I had a roommate who graduated in the class of ’69, and he was so taken by Lowenthal’s speech that he sent me a copy. And he said, "Bruce, you got to read this. This was really powerful." So if you go to the archives, you’ll find it. But if you’ll bear with me, his speech was called The Dangers of Adjustment, Random Thoughts on Revolution. And here’s what he says about education, because he says it better than I can.
Bruce Gordon ’68: He says, "The function of college, particularly at Gettysburg, should be to transform an innocent, complacent, undisturbed, middle-class freshmen into a maladjusted rebel by the time of graduation. If this transformation has not occurred, if the graduating senior is ready to take his place unquestionably in the cozy woo of mother America, adjusted, conventional, flag-waving, money hungry, at peace with the world, then I would suggest that his college experience has been a grievous failure, for he has obviously been untouched by what should have been a shattering intellectual and emotional experience." That’s what I think higher education is there to do.
President Bob Iuliano: We are certainly trying to get people to rethink their understanding of themselves, their understanding of the world. And again, just to be repetitive, to get, as you said, in the arena. And to some extent, Bruce, I don’t care what their views are. There are parameters to that. I just want them to feel strongly and passionately about their responsibility to make a difference in the world. Let me ask you one final question, and that is in 2015, you delivered remarks at the dedication of our new Lincoln statue and you talked about the importance of freedom and equality. And you posed a question at that time, and that is, can we be the great nation that we have been in the past? That was five years ago. Same question back to you, are you optimistic that we can be the great nation that we have been in the past?
Bruce Gordon ’68: First, let me tell you that I have been for the better part of my life, an optimist. As I’ve gotten a little older, I’m starting to get some balance between optimism and pragmatism. My back and forth between optimism and pragmatism is largely tied to whether our nation will embrace its natural strength, which is the diversity of its people. If we harness that strength, then yes, we can be a great nation. If we fail to harness that strength, then we won’t. And not to get too pessimistic, but when you look at the Lincoln statue, and you think about the battlefield that surrounds this campus, and you think about the time, the Civil War, we are in a modern day kind of a Civil War here. We are so polarized that we have one side and the other.
Bruce Gordon ’68: And the question is really going to be, what can we do as a nation to honor, and respect and value the diversity of thought, the ethnic diversity of our nation, to make it a better place, as opposed to allow ourselves to be divided and be at war with differing cultures inside of one country? So I’m hopeful that the energy we feel today, I’m hopeful that leaders like you, who have a vision for Gettysburg College, that is, I think one of the most important institutions in the country, if we can get the energy on campus, teach the value system, teach principles, follow the thinking of Larry Lowenthal about what the college experience should be about, then I’m convinced that we will rise to greatness. And I’m going to cross my fingers and do everything I can in the spirit of John Lewis to continue to fight until I can no more.
President Bob Iuliano: Well, I cannot think of a better way to end this conversation than with that answer. And just a deep expression of gratitude for your taking the time to talk with us today, to offer these thoughts for your engagement with this community, and what I hope to be continued engagement, because you have a lot to offer us as we try to help our students and this college chart that path that you have outlined for us. So thank you so much, Bruce. It’s really been a pleasure.
Bruce Gordon ’68: It’s been my pleasure as well, Bob. Great to see you.
President Bob Iuliano: You as well.
President Bob Iuliano: Let me conclude with a slice of life from Gettysburg College. As we’ve just heard in the conversation with Bruce Gordon, the most vibrant campuses are akin to mosaics. They consist of students and faculty members from different backgrounds, different perspectives, different life experiences. When brought together in a thoughtful and educationally engaging way, these aspects of difference create something powerful, the opportunity for each of us to see the world through another’s eyes, to question our subtle assumptions, to broaden our understanding of ourselves in the world in which we live. International students are an essential part of this mosaic. They come to Gettysburg to learn and to pursue their own path of personal development, but along the way, they leave a deep imprint on campus. They teach us about how cultures differ. It also reinforce how much more we are alike than different. They encourage us to think more globally and to be bold in our aspirations for ourselves. They are full and valued members of our community.
President Bob Iuliano: Recently, the United States Government summarily announced a rule that would have made it harder for international students to study in the United States. Perhaps more importantly, the rule would have sent a message that would discourage international students from even trying to study here. Together with many others in higher education, Gettysburg College responded, and I was pleased to see that the government quickly rescinded its unwise policy. I am even more pleased to know that our international students will continue to be part of this learning community that is far better for their participation, and I look forward to welcoming the newest members of the international community to our student body in what is now only a matter of weeks.
President Bob Iuliano: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and want to be notified of future episodes, please subscribe to Conversations Beneath the Cupola by visiting Gettysburg.edu or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a topic or suggestion for a future podcast, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you, and until next time.